We are just past the days when newspapers were covered with images of beheaded corpses, orange-clad men with knives sawing at their throats, and streams of pick-up trucks, festooned with black banners and balaclava-clad fighters, heading into dusty towns and cities. It isn’t that such violence is no longer newsworthy; it’s more that the British public are becoming inured to the disaster in full swing at the other end of the Mediterranean.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—Isis or, to use the derogatory name I prefer, Daesh, which is the exact Arabic acronym for Isis (al Dawla al Islamiya al Iraq al Sham) and also a nice pun on the word daes, “one who sows discord“—has conquered much of eastern Syria and north western Iraq.
It is a motley crew of disgruntled Sunni tribes, angered by their respective treatments at the hands of the Alawites in Syria (a Shia minority) and the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad; hardened killers who cut their teeth fighting the US after the fall of Saddam; clerics schooled in the most apocalyptic versions of Islam; and foreigners swept in from across the Arab world and, indeed, North America, Europe and our own shores.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian of pre-Baathist Syria, that is, the period of history that started with the fall of the Ottomans at the end of the First World War, covered the French Mandate and the instability of independence, and ended with the rise of the Ba’athists, a kind of socialist nationalists, in the 1960s. Moubayed has just produced a short and succinct book, Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad (I.B. Tauris, September 2015); his academic specialisms put him in good stead to understand the creation of Daesh in its interwoven threads.
These include the suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation once dominated by middle-class professionals who failed to take over Syria through the ballot box and were brutally squashed by the Assad regimes, moving, in Moubayed’s expression, from being “gentlemen to jihadis”; and the ideological power of political Islamist writers who gave legitimacy to the senses of alienation and grievance felt by unemployed young Arab men, powerless to improve their lot in an ossified, stale society dominated by one clan (the Alawites) through the military, the secret police, and baksheesh-paying corruption.
Under the Black Flag charts how Al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise morphed into Daesh, whereas its Syrian rival has become Jabhat al Nusra li Ahl al Sham, “the support front for the people of the Levant”, which was the first radical Islamist group to grow out of, and capitalise on, the popular revolution in Syria precipitated by the Arab Spring.
The seeds of Daesh are the experienced jihadis who were brought up on stories of bravery and rectitude fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Moubayed charts how Al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise morphed into Daesh, and themselves cut their teeth in the multitude of jihadi campaigns, near (against the US) and far (Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines) since then.
Moubayed attempts to answer the question, why has Daesh been so successful? Its success is a product of familiar factors like a strong leadership, a political vacuum and pure chance, and the repeated failures of others (the Iraqi government, the Alawites, and the international community, where principal blame must lie at the feet of the United States).
The chapters on leadership are particularly instructive. He refers to the ancient Islamic jurisprudential concept of the caliph, the supreme political leader (khalifa means ‘successor’ in Arabic) whose authority is drawn in Koranic hadith, the compiled words and actions of Muhammed. The caliphate died with the Ottomans when Mustafa Kamal abolished the institution in 1924—until a formerly non-descript minor cleric from Baghdad declared himself the worldwide caliph in a video released on 29 June 2014.
Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was a cleric from Samarra, north of Baghdad, who was considered puny and shy as a teenager. He developed a particular religiosity in his late teens and became radicalised in the dying years of Saddam’s rule. The invasion turned a latent radical into an active fighter, and he was imprisoned by American forces for ten months in 2004. Undeterred, he continued fighting with the underground “resistance” in the face of the US surge in forces in 2008 and 2009, developing and organising networks of fighters and honing his urban warfare skills, in particular the deployment of suicide bombers.
What is clear within Daesh is that, once Al Baghdad is finally killed by the US or the Russians, there is a coterie of equally competent and terrifying leaders waiting to take over.
Moubayed has done well to get access not only to plentiful open source information on Daesh, but also to speak to friends and friends-of-friends who live behind the iron veil that has been drawn across the Levant. His chapters on life in Al Raqqa, the erstwhile capital of Daesh, and society in the captured territories, are particularly instructive. He has obviously spent many hours on social media with his informants.
He makes colourful asides which take his book beyond the status of a superficial history. For instance, it turns out many jihadis like football: Al Baghdadi is an avid football player and fan who set up a team at his mosque, as is (or, maybe, was, if special forces or an airstrike haven’t got him) Mohammed Emwazi, the infamous ‘Jihad John’ from North London who has led so many televised decapitations. During Al Qaeda’s years in Pakistan and Sudan, Osama Bin Laden and other leading figures set up several teams, principally as a form of bonding. Fanatical about football, fanatical about killing.
Since the book was published, a new chapter has been turned in Daesh’s history. Russia has substantially increased the size of its forces supporting government regime forces in Syria, and has started airstrikes in tandem with the US and France. Whether this is enough to break the stalemate on the front lines, with the rump ‘Free Syrian Army’ woefully under supported by the West, remains to be seen.
Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London. This article has been republished with permission from Quadrapheme.